Observant people familiar with dog body language know that a dog is more relaxed and less stressed if the dog is able to choose an “indirect” path — a curve if you will — when approaching people, other dogs, or objects/locations that are unfamiliar or have a history of causing the dog anxiety. Watching well-socialized dogs meet each other while off-leash illustrates this beautifully.
Have a look at the videos from this study where dogs’ heart rates were measured during direct approaches (head-on) and indirect approaches (curves). You will witness the correlation between the heart rate and the dog’s body language and tightness of the leash. In my Wellness & Enrichment dog class, I instruct students to monitor the amount of leash pressure the dog is causing on the walk and use that as a guide to assess the dog’s level of arousal in order to keep the dogs under threshold.
When walking a dog on a leash, remember to avoid head-on direct approaches when passing people, other dogs, skateboards, the yard with the dog barking at the fence, etc. Your dog might be trying to pull away to make that curve, but an uninformed dog handler may give a “correction” or lure/coax the dog to continue the direct approach, causing increased stress levels. This is how dogs become sensitized to these situations, and how many dogs begin to show over-reactive behaviours when encountering these things on a leash.
The information provided here only touches the surface of the subject. If your dog has severe reactivity problems, please consult the services of a professional who uses positive-reinforcement methods rather than compulsion training (verbal “psst’s” or physical corrections and/or aversive equipment such as pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, slip collars). Compulsion-based methods attempt to suppress the emotions that drive the over-reactive behaviours, and they often result in an escalation of unwanted behaviours and new unwanted behaviours.
What is over-reactivity?
Over-reactivity can be defined as an over-the-top emotional response to common stimuli in the dog’s environment at a normal intensity (“normal” referring to the distance, exposure time, and behaviour of the stimuli). These stimuli are commonly referred to as “triggers” because they trigger a response in the dog. Some dogs are over-reactive to a small number of triggers (other dogs, kids on skateboards, the mail carrier) but some dogs seem to overreact to nearly everything (sounds, movement, new objects, things that are out of place). In most cases the behaviours are due to frustration or fear, even if the dog is lunging and barking aggressively. In the case of fear-based over-reactivity, these aggressive displays are often used as a way for the dog to provoke a response in the “new thing” to determine if it’s a threat or not or to make the “scary thing” go away.
What can cause over-reactivity?
Genetics play a significant role in determining a dog’s temperament, and it’s important to note that a dog can only progress as far as his inherited “nature” will allow. What happens to a dog after he’s born will also have a huge influence on his temperament, especially socialization, training, and diet. (Illness can also be a factor, so be sure to consult your vet if you suspect this may be the case.)
Poor socialization (deficits and “bad” experiences) during the first few months of a puppy’s life can lead to over-reactivity. Puppyhood is when the dog learns what to expect in his environment, and if a puppy isn’t exposed in a positive way to the sights, sounds, and smells he is expected to encounter in his daily life, chances are he will have problems with over-reactivity. The puppy then enters adolescence, a stage of development where his instinct is to be very cautious about new things. (During this time it’s common for dogs to experience “fear periods” where they seem particularly sensitive, often showing increased sensitivity to sounds and movement.) Extremely negative experiences, especially if they happen during a fear period, can also create a fear of something that lasts the dog’s lifetime. Even if a dog is well socialized during puppyhood, there is the risk of de-socialization if the dog is no longer exposed to new things, becoming overreactive to the environment outside of their yards.
One factor often overlooked is diet. Low quality or highly processed ingredients, heavy starch-based diets (i.e. kibble), additives, and gaps in nutrients can lead to behavioural problems in some dogs. A healthy nervous system needs proper nutrition, and a weakened digestive system cannot properly digest food to get the nutrients the dog needs. A damaged digestive system leads to food sensitivities, allergies, hormonal imbalances, etc., which can stress the entire body including the nervous system. As well, there is some evidence suggesting that the gut biome influences behaviour, and onea gut biome that is out of balance can adversely affect the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Current science is showing clear links between the nervous system and the digestive system (“the second brain” as some scientists are putting it).
Things you can do:
Reduce stress, provide mental stimulation and appropriate exercise and play, increase sleep and quiet time, improve diet, and work with a positive reinforcement trainer to help improve your dog’s ability to cope with things in the environment. Do what you can to avoid isolating your dog because this can lead to an increase in reactivity. But this doesn’t mean forcing your dog into situations he’s not ready for because this can reinforce and increase reactive behaviours. Work slowly and systematically.
When discussing the behaviour modification for over-reactive dogs, it’s important to understand how essential it is to keep a dog under his threshold. When a dog is over his threshold, it’s extremely difficult for him to learn new behaviours because his brain is in “reactive mode” rather than “thinking mode”, and each time he over-reacts to a trigger that behaviour is reinforced. To ensure you are able to keep your dog below his threshold, you need to be able to read his subtle signs of stress so you can intervene before he goes over his threshold. By the time he’s straining at the leash or vocalizing, it’s too late; he’s over his threshold.
It’s best to consult a professional trainer experienced in working with over-reactivity, especially severe cases, as this can be an involved and complex process. Avoid any trainers who suggest forcing a dog to remain over his threshold to “let him work it out on his own”; these flooding techniques can overwhelm a dog – especially one with a sensitive nervous system already — and cause undesirable side effects. Sometimes a dog will quiet down after a forced exposure and the humans think the dog is cured of his reactivity. This is not necessarily the case. The dog may have exhausted his nervous system and temporarily “shut down”; he has not changed his mind about the trigger, but he may have changed his mind about you and how much he can trust you. This dog may be more likely to bite without warning in the future, and this approach is likely to result in a more extreme reaction to the trigger in the future and/or a new, undesirable behaviour (i.e. regression in housetraining, aggression around food or toys, etc.).
Activities/Classes for over-reactive dogs:
Any class for over-reactive dogs should provide safe, controlled opportunities for reactive dogs to choose appropriate behaviours in the presence of the trigger. It’s essential that the space be large enough for the dogs to have the distance they need to avoid sensitizing the dog further. Some dogs need to be 100 feet away from another dog. If you are beginning to learn to read your dog and are working on giving your dog enough distance from “the trigger”, here is a good rule to follow: When you think your dog has enough distance — double it. There is a lot going inside your dog well before most humans ever notice the subtle signs of stress. By the time most humans see them (even trainers, and especially the trainers that are misinterpreting the signals), the dog is already anxious.
Dogs with over-reactive behaviours should be gently and systematically desensitized to their triggers while they remain below threshold, and if counter conditioning is a component of the training, the dog trainer needs an accurate understanding and skill level to implement it properly and train dog owners to do it, as well. And they need to understand when counter conditioning attempts may be interfering with the dog’s progress.
Anyone interested in taking a class for over-reactive dogs can contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA
When Frasier and I moved off of our farm, his world got smaller. Gone were the days of running free through the cranberry bogs for our morning walks. In the city, he was confined to leash walks and he became increasingly frustrated and reactive to other dogs. If he saw a squirrel, he pulled so hard that I could barely stay on my feet. Walking him became a chore instead of the best part of my day. Then, we found Jennifer Berg. The training that she introduced us to has worked wonders. I can honestly say I enjoy walking my dog again!
~ Frasier’s “mom”
I’m thrilled with how quickly Lucy’s reactivity to other dogs has diminished! And I remain impressed with Jennifer’s quick eye to point out the tiniest of stress reactions from Lucy. Many thanks for helping me become a more sensitive dog owner!
~ Nadine Baker
Some environments are very stimulating to a dog.
- places new to your dog
- places where your dog experienced something very intense (intense for your dog)
- windy days: wind stirs up scents and can lead to a bit of sensory overload
- rain or humidity: moisture increases bacteria growth and leads to an increase in the amount and intensity of the scents. This can lead to a bit of sensory overload.
- places with lots of things happening
- places where there are “triggers” (things that trigger a reaction in your dog
We cannot change the environment to make it less exciting for a dog, but we can control our dog’s access to it.
- let your dog have more time sniffing and exploring an area before proceeding to a new section.
- retreat to an area where your dog was previously calm to let your dog’s nervous system recover a bit before heading out to a new section. Sometimes it’s good to have a “home base” area where your dog is calm, and then head out in one direction and then back to home base to relax, then heat out in a different direction and back to home base. Another way would be to start at A, walk to B, back to A. Recover. Walk to B, then to C, then to B. Recover. (B has now become home base). Then walk to C, then to D, then to C. Recover. (C has now become home base).
- the more time your dog spends in high arousal, the weaker his/her nervous system. Recovery periods can help, but you may need more frequent breaks and longer breaks. This analogy might help: think of your dog’s nervous system as a pot of boiling water on a stove. If we keep the pot just below a boil, it can begin to boil quite quickly. If you turn the temperature down for short periods, you can prevent the water from boiling quickly, but eventually it will boil. Sometimes you can take the pot off the stove for a bit to let the water cool and then put it back on the stove again. Sorry if you don’t cook and this analogy is meaningless. LOL
- Start very easy for your dog. Give your dog lots of distance from the triggers — it’s much better to start too far away and then get a bit closer than it is to start too close. Once the dog goes over threshold, the stress hormones are flowing (no way to stop them) and the nervous system will be significantly weakened for some time (maybe hours or even days if it was really intense). Boiling pot analogy. If you start with room temperature water, it takes less time for the pot of water to boil than it takes for that pot to return back to room temperature.
- Just because your dog hasn’t “boiled over” yet, doesn’t mean your dog can handle more. Be sure to err on the side of caution. After “close calls” and “intense challenges” that your dog successfully passed, your dog will need recovery time.
- Figure out if there is a less intense time to go to a location. Perhaps there is a time of day when there are fewer of your dog’s triggers around. Maybe your dog will be better able to self-regulate and make good choices if your dog has had a good nap, or a training session, or a play in the yard, or a full tummy, the day after daycare, or anything BUT the day after daycare — whatever it is that works for your dog. You are the expert of your dog. Be a detective and see what you can do to change the situation to help your dog control his/her own behaviours.
Remember, we can’t change our dog’s emotional state. We can control some of the things that influence our dog’s emotional state and we can help encourage some emotional states and discourage others. The rest is up to the dog. It must be at the dog’s pace.
Please read the short piece on how emotions drive behaviours.
In any dog training situation — whether in a formal dog class or on a walk in your neighbourhood — it is essential to assess your dog’s emotional state. Is your dog finding the experience pleasant, and is your dog under threshold? If not, your dog will begin to show more “unwanted behaviours” and your dog will find it difficult to learn.
Many (I would argue most) unwanted behaviours are a product of stress —distress and/or eustress (e.g. happy excitement). If your responses to your dog’s behaviours add to his/her stress, it’s unlikely that your dog’s behaviours will improve and they are likely to become worse.
Emotions drive behaviours. If you suppress the behaviours, the emotions still need to go somewhere (often resulting in worsening of behaviours or new unwanted behaviours). Avoid using training methods that are designed to suppress behaviours; instead address the underlying causes of the unwanted behaviours (e.g. distress or extreme eustress).
This often involves controlling your dog’s access to the environment, rather than trying to control your dog. Don’t force your dog to “get over his/her fears” but instead use gentle exposures; don’t let your dog move into a new area or closer to the “object of interest” unless your dog’s arousal levels are below threshold.
To effectively read your dog’s emotional state, you must become fluent in canine body language, especially the signals your dog prefers to use. If you can become aware of the very subtle signals your dog uses when stress levels are relatively low, you can help your dog before he/she begins to show the unwanted behaviours.
Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.
Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.
Look away or turn away
Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
Shaking off as if wet
Yawning when not sleepy
Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.
In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs. In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals. She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals. She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.
Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting. In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger. Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene. The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.
To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking. They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning. Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety. Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours. The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.
When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve. Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.